Can MPs force people to testify?
Former Vote Leave strategist Dominic Cummings follows Mark Zuckerberg in declining request to appear before MPs
The head of the Vote Leave Brexit campaign has become the latest public figure to refuse to appear before MPs, sparking debate about whether parliament should have the power to force people to testify.
Votes Leave’s chief strategist, Dominic Cummings, who was credited with being the brains behind the successful Brexit campaign, told MPs on the select committee investigating fake news he would not be willing to answer questions in public before the Electoral Commission finished its investigation into the referendum campaign, he said in a blog post.
Cummings, who is set to be portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch in an forthcoming Channel 4 dramatisation of the referendum campaign, rejected a formal summons from the digital culture, media and sport committee, which demanded he appear before the end of May.
He is not the only public figure to refuse an invitation to appear before MPs. Earlier this week, says The Guardian, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said he would not answer questions from parliament surrounding data and privacy in the wake of the Cambridge Analytic scandal. He instead got one of his deputies to appear in his place.
The Metro described the move as “sticking tow figures up at the UK”, while committee chair, Damian Collins, called it “absolutely astonishing”. Zuckerberg has since agreed to answer questions before MEPs in the European Parliament.
The Guardian says two refusals in less than a week “raises questions about the system of compelling reluctant witnesses to appear in front of parliament”.
In theory, MPs have “the power to issue fines or even threaten imprisonment for non-attendance”, says the paper, but in reality, “the system relies largely on consent, formal rebukes and the idea that individuals can be shamed by the media into attending”.
One such example is Sports Direct founder, Mike Ashley, who bowed to public pressure and appeared before MPs to explain his company’s treatment of workers, after initially indicating he would reject a formal summons.
In most cases, either through fear of legal repercussions, public condemnation or as an exercise in damage-limitation, a formal summons will compel people to appear before MPs.
But it remains an option of last resort, and carries with it serious risks if they are ignored, says Hannah White, of the Institute for Government. “Every time everyone observe the emperor has no clothes, in that parliament can’t force people to come, they lose a little bit of their authority,” she says.